The following is an excerpt of my guest column for Adobe’s blog about creativity in business, 99u.
“You need to sit still up there.”
I panicked. It was years ago, and for 30 straight minutes, I’d been listening to a veteran public speaker tear apart a video of my latest performance on stage. As a newer speaker on the circuit, I’d asked him what best practices he could share with me. His biggest and most poignant yet was the idea of “blocking,” or intentional movement.
“Try to establish one side of the stage as the place where bad stuff happens in your stories, and the other side where good stuff happens. Then walk there, stop, and make your point. You need to sit still more.”
Uh oh. Understand: I’m Italian-American. I’m also kinda, let’s just say, “enthusiastic.” (That’s how you’d describe a squirrel after six espressos, right?) “Standing still” ain’t exactly my thing. It may not even be physically possible. I speak so much with my hands that if they stopped moving, I think I’d just stop talking. But I thought, okay, that’s the best practice, and so that’s what I need to do to succeed. As a result, I started doing something awkward and terrible to try my hardest to sit still: I’d stick my hand in my pocket in an effort to stop the movement. It looked sloppy, as my true personality warred against my desire to fit myself into the tried-and-true convention.
Today, I kick myself just thinking back to those moments on stage. Why did I do that? This guy was a TED speaker, and a steady kind of personality. Instead of using my own energy to my advantage, I tried to fit someone else’s mold for what “success” looks like, even though I’m so clearly not him. Why?
I had Pike Syndrome.
Pike Syndrome is just one of three different psychological barriers I uncovered researching for my new book, Break the Wheel. These barriers prevent us from contextualizing a best practice or new idea to make sense given the specific details of each new situation we encounter. In other words, when we fall victim to any of the three, we prioritize conventional thinking instead of thinking for ourselves. Rather than act like investigators who look for evidence to make the right decisions for a given case, we act like, or seek out, experts, preferring absolutes in some theoretical sense. We want to be right rather than try to get it right. Even better if you can quickly search or tap your way to finding “the” answer from an expert.
What if we acted like investigators instead? What if we stopped obsessing over the “right” answers of everyone else and asked ourselves the right questions? We might overcome each of these psychological barriers.
1. Pike Syndrome
Pike Syndrome is a feeling of powerlessness caused by repeated negative events. Maybe you’re a designer whose boss keeps shooting down ideas, or a marketer frustrated by surprise algorithm changes on a social network, or a podcaster whose dream guests just keep ignoring your outreach. Or maybe you’re a young public speaker continually told to “just sit still up there” by someone you admire. Whatever the case, when we suffer from Pike Syndrome, we feel powerless. There are so many “right” answers out there, and so much wisdom bottled up in the minds of experts, that we assume we can’t possibly make any better decisions when left to our own devices.
So why “pike” syndrome? Imagine a pike swimming around an aquarium. He’s a lithe, ruthless hunter. If you drop some minnows into that tank, the pike will immediately snap them up. However, if you lower those minnows into the water surrounded by some glass, the pike can’t see the glass, and so he just starts smashing up against it in a hopeless pursuit of his prey. He’ll do this for hours until he finally decides that minnows aren’t prey.
Then, a funny thing happens: You can remove the glass, set the minnows free, and they can swim all around the tank undisturbed by the pike. Tasty little morsels are swimming right in front of his nose, but this perpetually pissed off predator doesn’t move so much as an inch.
This explains a concept called “learned helplessness,” and I think we all suffer from a degree of learned helplessness in our careers. From the moment we’re taught in school that there’s a “right” and “wrong” answer, we treat every task in our work like we have to find the “right” answers, even the most complicated and creative things we do. Making matters worse, in the era of Advice Overload, everybody on the internet seems to have the “right” answer for us, no matter what we’re doing.
What could we possibly offer or do to find our own path or make our own decisions? And so, there we go again, removing our self-awareness and situational awareness to instead hunt for our answers “out there.” We look for whatever works in general or on average, or, as the business world likes to call them, “best practices.” However, tasty little morsels of detail swim right in front of us everyday, if only we’d use that information to inform our decisions.
As I learned as a speaker, just because something is common, doesn’t make it the best approach for you. (For what it’s worth, I do incorporate blocking techniques into my speeches today, but they’re fast-paced, organic, and not restricted to two points where I stop and sit still. As with anything, there is no “right way” to deliver a great speech.)
How do we combat this feeling of helplessness? We let the customer be the guide. In the face of endless advice of what we should or shouldn’t do, the only thing that matters is we do what works for us and for those we serve with our work. What if we found better, more fundamental insights about our customers? What if little tests that trigger big, emotional responses from them led us down a different path? Would it matter if that path had no precedent or best practice or case study to say it’s the “right” path, if it’s the right path for your customers?
Ask yourself: Are you spending more time talking to customers, or reading about best practices? What if the customer was the guide?
2. The Foraging Choice
The foraging choice is the decision between exploiting your current position and exploring other possibilities.